Danaris Mazara owns Sweet Grace Heavenly Cakes. Credit: Scott Suchman

In The New Builders, written by Times of E founder Elizabeth MacBride and venture capitalist Seth Levine, the authors look at the landscape of entrepreneurship across America. In this excerpt, the authors focus on Danaris Mazara, the founder of a bakery in Lawrence, Mass. But like many entrepreneurs, and many of the women and people of color the authors profile, Mazara doesn’t focus on what stands against her, but on what she has to do to overcome. The New Builders was published May 4, 2021 by Wiley.

Sweet Grace Heavenly Cakes was born in 2008, as the Great Recession ripped through our country, particularly affecting working-class communities like the one in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Danaris Mazara can identify the exact minute the bakery was born, in fact. She was lying on her couch, staring at the drop-ceiling of her rented house, and she had $37 worth of food stamps to her name.

In fact, it wasn’t even her own $37 in food stamps. Her mother had stopped by earlier in the day to offer her support. “I know you are going through a hard time,” she said, handing her daughter the food stamps. 

Danaris’ shift at Samsung started soon, but that job wasn’t enough to pay for rent and food. Her husband, Andres, was out of work and sliding into depression. The closure of Haverhill Paperboard, a local manufacturer that had been operating for over 100 years, cost him and 173 people their jobs. They’d lost their house and declared bankruptcy as the Great Recession of 2008 came barreling down on the new lives the couple, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, had built in Lawrence.  

“What are you going to do with $37 in food stamps?” Danaris asked herself. “In a couple of days, you won’t have anything to feed your family because that is not enough money to buy groceries.”

Their baby daughter, Grace, was asleep nearby. She had been conceived after a string of miscarriages, and Danaris desperately wanted to stay home to care for her newborn but the family couldn’t afford to lose her income. This balancing act, baby, factory job, depressed husband, was not for her. She was sure this was not the life she was meant to be leading. 

Danaris believes in God, and at that moment, a divinely inspired thought came into her head: make flan.

The funny thing is that Danaris didn’t know how to make flan. In fact, she thought God was joking with her. But she had a niece famous for the custard topped with caramelized sugar, so she called her to ask for the recipe. It might not have been what her mother had in mind for her to spend the food stamps on, but Danaris believed she was responding to a calling, and spent the $37 on the ingredients she needed to start baking. 

The first batch was ruined, burned beyond saving (or eating). She stood by the oven, crying. “I was like, God just told me to do this, and look.” She started to cry but then she reminded herself, firmly, not to give up. 

She fared better with her next batch. “They came out so beautiful,” she remembered. The tops were dark brown, and the bottoms a perfect buttery yellow. She cut the flan in pieces, put them in small containers, and took them to work at Samsung. To her surprise and amazement, they flew off the break table. She started selling flan for $6 apiece.

She made flan every day for a month, turning that initial $37 in food stamps into over $500. It was 2009, and she had a business on her hands if she could only figure out what to do next. But she faced many challenges, not the least of which were her limited English and a husband who didn’t – then – believe in her. She was like many New Builders, especially women, women of color, and immigrants: the odds were stacked high against her. And she had little in the way of a network to help. But, she had friends, as well as a gift for making more. And she had at least one critical piece of luck on her side, though it probably didn’t feel lucky at the time: she lived in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Lawrence became a testbed for a new program to support underserved entrepreneurs, but for the moment it was what Boston Magazine called the “city of the damned.”

“Crime is soaring, schools are failing, government has lost control, and Lawrence, the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts, has never been in worse shape. The public school system is in receivership. Public-safety cuts have been drastic, and felony crimes have skyrocketed from 1,777 in 2009 to 2,597 during the first 11 months of 2011. Unemployment is as high as 18 percent, compared with the state average of less than 7 percent. With 76,000 people squeezed into 6.93 square miles, violent crime on the rise, and a public school system that’s the worst in the state, the once-proud ’Immigrant City’ has become an object lesson in how to screw things up.”

But the magazine was missing what was happening at the same time: the LatinX community in Lawrence, especially the women, were starting businesses. By 2016, an estimated 40 to 60% of the businesses in the community were owned by Hispanics, with both Dominicans and Puerto Ricans having a big presence in the city. And these new businesses were seemingly in it together – building up by leaning on each other.

Some patterns hold true across the years in American life. From the late 1800s, when the mills were the source of prosperity, the wealthy owners and managers have always lived in Andover, while the workers lived in the mill towns of Lawrence and Lowell.  From across the river in Andover, a couple named Jaishree and Desh Deshpande were watching what was happening in Lawrence. From their prosperous vantage point, they’d been increasingly troubled by Lawrence’s disintegration. Out of Desh’s experience as one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the telecom industry in the 1990s, the idea for a unique business accelerator was percolating. In 2010, they launched the organization that would become Entrepreneurship for All, but Danaris didn’t know about that – at first.

Buy the book straight from the publisher here: The New Builders.

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.